In a historic referendum on their future, Quebeckers chose yesterday to cast their lot with Canada by overwhelmingly rejecting the sovereignty- association option of Premier Rene Levesque and his Parti Quebecois Government.
Mr. Levesque was almost weeping when he told an emotional rally at Montreal's Paul Sauve arena last night: "This hurts more than any election defeat. I know of what I speak." It was a bitter defeat because, despite the advice of hard-liners in his party, he had put a soft question to Quebeckers, designed to attract even the support of federalists who thought a yes vote would bring constitutional change.
All he wanted, Mr. Levesque had said, was a mandate to negotiate sovereignty for Quebec coupled with close economic ties with Canada. And nothing would change, he promised, until Quebeckers had a chance in a second referendum to approve whatever came out of the negotiations.
But the yes side obtained only 40 per cent of the popular vote, no more than what the PQ garnered in the 1976 provincial election. Even the ridings held by the PQ voted no, the yes side's only strength coming from the Saguenay-North Shore area. The result also indicated that a slight majority of the province's francophones voted no. Mr. Levesque, knowing a week ago that the solid no vote among non-francophones would tip the balance, changed his tactics to adopt a more strident stance, hoping to polarize the electorate further and gain at least a moral victory by getting a majority among francophones.
Mr. Levesque said last night the Quebec people had "cleanly given federalism another chance" and called upon Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to make good his promises of constitutional reform. But he also called the federal intervention in the campaign "scandalously immoral." Liberal Leader Claude Ryan, the leader of the no forces supporting federalism, told a flag-waving victory rally at the Verdun Auditorium that the outcome showed "the depth of our Canadian roots," and that Quebeckers believe that "our future lies within federalism." He claimed a majority in every sector of the population, including the French-speaking voters. There would be no more "subtle distinctions" among Quebeckers on the basis of language; from now on "we are all full-status citizens again." Mr. Trudeau told a news conference that the vote showed the maturity of Quebec voters, but he said he couldn't put out of his mind that 40 per cent of Quebec voted yes. All Canadians should undertake a rebuilding of the Canadian federation.
He called on Quebeckers to heal their wounds: "To all my fellow Quebeckers who have been wounded by defeat, I wish to say simply that we have all lost a little in this referendum. If you take account of the broken friendships, the strained family relationships, the hurt pride, there is no one among us who has not suffered some wound which we must try to heal in the days and weeks to come." The yes forces had been saying that if the no side won it would be because of the non-francophones, and Mr. Ryan had made a point of seeking an over-all majority among both the English and French-speaking voters.
He, like Mr. Levesque, also had his eye on the next provincial election, and last night he challenged Mr. Levesque to call one in the fall.
Mr. Ryan was proving himself in his first province-wide campaign since becoming party leader two years ago. He proved a tireless campaigner, dispelling earlier doubts that he was too intellectual and that his homespun, grass-roots campaign, which ignored the news media, was too unorthodox to succeed. At the end he was showing the strain of the 35-day fight.
The turnout yesterday was high, possibly topping 85 per cent, but Quebeckers are traditionally heavy voters anyway, as seen in the percentage who cast ballots in the three previous provincial elections: 84.2 per cent in 1970, 80.38 per cent in 1973 and 85.27 per cent in 1976. Yesterday even prisoners in jails were allowed to vote for the first time, patients were carried out of hospitals to cast their ballots, and at some polls there were hour-long lineups.
Federal Justice Minister Jean Chretien, a major participant in the campaign, said last night he had been afraid that "with emotions running high that some might lose their heads, but both sides of the barricade behaved with remarkable civility." It was a hard-fought campaign that divided families, exposed old wounds, and widened the chasm between the francophone and anglophone communities as never before. But it also brought about a massive political awakening. Thousands who had never been interested in politics were forced to take a stand.
So much was at stake and feelings ran so high that it was remarkable the campaign was as clean as it was. Still, accusations flew back and forth. Mr. Levesque accused the federalists of being "merchants of fear, shame and humiliation." Mr. Ryan said the yes people were "Kremlin masters " using "fascist methods." Mr. Ryan put the yes forces on the defensive right from the start, forcing them to justify sovereignty-association. Mr. Levesque never really went after Mr. Ryan's Beige Paper, a 128-page document made public in January that contains Mr. Ryan's proposals for a new Canadian constitution.
The campaign started off as a debate over the merits of the question but ended up as an emotion-packed choice between Quebec and Canada. In the end everyone knew where he stood, what the question meant, regardless of the actual wording. In the polling booths yesterday there were few people bothering to read the question.
The wording was made public on Dec. 21 and the electorate was able to examine it for three months before the actual National Assembly debate began in March. The entire debate in the Assembly was televised live on the Government-owned Radio-Quebec nework, and on some nights several hundred thousand people watched.
The PQ Government clobbered the ill-prepared Liberal opposition. The PQ members had their speeches written for them. They spoke about pride, dignity, the sense of solidarity of Quebeckers, while the Liberal members, who wrote their own speeches at Mr. Ryan's insistence, were usually off topic or carping about the wording of the question.
The first opinion polls that came out after the Assembly debate showed the yes side comfortably ahead, and the call went out to Ottawa that maybe Mr. Ryan wasn't up to the challenge.
But two weeks later, an unexpected incident changed the nature of the campaign. Lise Payette, the minister responsible for the Feminine Condition, in an unguarded moment referred to Mrs. Ryan as an "Yvette," the docile little girl in a widely used grade-school primer.
That provoked a massive backlash among housewives, and a week later more than 14,000 chanting women filled the Montreal Forum. The polls would later show that 10 per cent of Quebec women changed their vote intentions.
The day Mr. Levesque announced the date of the referendum, Mr. Ryan admitted that his side was trailing but he said he was like the tortoise in the fable and in the end he would catch up to the hare.
He knew he didn't have the charisma of Mr. Levesque, so he surrounded himself with a team. Sometimes as many as 14 people spoke before him at rallies.
From Ottawa came Energy Minister Marc Lalonde, who told audiences how Quebec needed Canadian oil. Mr. Chretien showed up and talked about Canadian pride. Democratic Creditiste Camille Samson, the leader and only member of his party in the Assembly, provided the comic relief, regaling crowds with his backwoods tubthumping style.
Mr. Trudeau put aside his pride and didn't try to upstage Mr. Ryan. He appeared at three major rallies and made a major contribution, being careful not to appear he was taking over.
During the second week, Mr. Ryan took off the gloves and starting lashing into the PQ Government, using language few thought him capable of. The no side used fear as an effective weapon, repeatedly reminding the elderly that pension cheques came from Ottawa, raising the spectre of fascism among ethnic groups and the threat of violence if the yes side won or lost. Mr. Ryan repeatedly slammed the French-language news media, to the delight of the population.
In the final two weeks Mr. Ryan began appearing at more shopping centres and cutting down on the number of big rallies. The no side increased its media advertising, which it had been saving for the end.
The yes side did just the opposite. It had run its advertising mainly at the start of the campaign, and at the end began staging huge rallies, with music, singing, chanting and banners, trying to counter opinion polls that showed the no side had pulled ahead.
Mr. Levesque made a bid to polarize the vote along language lines. If he was not going to win a clear majority among all voters, at least he would try to win the consolation prize - a majority among francophones, which would stand him in good stead in the next election.